Institutions shape character and instill virtue, theologian asserts

Institutions play a vital role in shaping character and forming virtuous people, said Gregory Jones, who will assume the provost's position at Baylor University May 16. (Photo / Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications)

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WACO—Christians should recognize the importance of institutions such as churches and universities in shaping character and instilling virtue, theologian Gregory Jones told a crowd at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary.

jones starr 300Baylor University President Ken Starr welcomes Gregory Jones, who will assume the provost’s position at Baylor on May 16. (Photo / Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications) Jones, professor of theology and Christian ministry at Duke University and former dean of Duke Divinity School, delivered the Bill and Roberta Bailey Family Lecture in Christian Ethics one day after he was named Baylor’s executive vice president and provost, effective May 16.

“If we care about the formation of virtuous people, if we care about the formation of character, if we want to have the kinds of conditions that enable human beings to flourish, we are going to have to pay far more attention to the shaping of culture and the shaping of institutions,” Jones said.

‘Selfie’-driven culture

More than 35 years after Christopher Lasch wrote The Culture of Narcissism as a critique of American society, the 21st century “selfie”-driven culture in the United States increasingly demonstrates preoccupation with self, Jones asserted.

“Even the language of virtue and character—particularly in the more popular context—has been reduced to an individualism where it seems it is all just about what I am about” and techniques for self-improvement, he said.

Jones 300Institutions such as churches and universities provide a context where people learn to “swim in the deeper end of the pool” where friendship with God develops them into virtuous people, said Gregory Jones, who will assume the provost’s position at Baylor University May 16. (Photo / Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications) Charity is the root and ground of other virtues, and human flourishing grows out of friendship with God, which is a lifelong journey, Jones said, citing Thomas Aquinas. In contrast, 21st century American culture is preoccupied with superficial spirituality focused on self rather than God, he insisted.

“Most of the noise in the world of spirituality is coming from the very shallow end of the pool,” Jones said. “Friendship with God requires the capacity to enter into the depths. … It’s not about me. It’s about God. That journey toward friendship with God comes when we learn to swim in the deeper end of the pool.”

Intimacy with God

Other Christians can be uncomfortable around saints who achieve that level of intimacy with the divine, because it reminds them how far they are from real friendship with God, he observed.

Jones noted his own experience with Maggy Barankitse, founder of Maison Shalom, a children’s shelter in war-torn and AIDS-ravaged Burundi. When he asked Barankitse about the hour she spends each afternoon in prayer, hoping to learn some technique, she said, “I mostly sit and listen to God.”

Sensing his disappointment in her answer, Barankitse told him she does repeat a specific prayer each morning: “Lord, let your miracles break forth every day, and let me not be an obstacle in any way.”

Jones Bellinger 300Bill Bellinger, chair of the religion department at Baylor University, welcomes Gregory Jones. (Photo / Robert Rogers/Baylor Marketing & Communications) People who achieve friendship with God live in expectation of his daily activity, as God does what only God can do, Jones noted. Furthermore, they would rather see God at work than maintain a position where they are the center of attention, he added.

The larger narrative

Character-shaping institutions make people aware they are part of a larger narrative of creation, redemption and consummation of God’s kingdom, he insisted.

The number of “nones”—people not affiliated with any organized religion—and “dones”—people who tried organized religion and left it behind—have increased because of boredom with institutions that fail to make a profound impact on their lives, not because they disbelieve in God, he said.

“They don’t see a larger story, and they don’t see that embodied in virtuous people,” he said.

Institutions that help people grow in friendship with God also enable them to extend their circles of friendship and develop deeper friendships with people who see the world differently.

“Friendship with God invites us into very unlikely friendships—the kind of friendships that invite and require us to embrace and engage others,” he said. “Christianity becomes a school for unlikely friendships that empower and enable us to become virtuous people.”

‘Not just necessary evils’

Jones disputed the notion Christianity began as a small caring community of friends that later “went bad” when it became institutionalized. Instead, he affirmed philosopher and theologian Alasdair MacIntyre’s assertion that the kind of practices and friendships that nurture tradition cannot exist apart from an institutionalized form.

“We know that institutions matter,” Jones said. “They matter not just as necessary evils. They actually form the conditions that, when nurtured well, create the background of our lives that are crucial for nurturing virtue.”

Institutions provide order and structure that enable people to “take the right things for granted” so they can concentrate on more important things, he said.

Organisms, not machines

Institutions are organisms, not machines, Jones emphasized. They must continue to grow and change, and they benefit from periodic pruning, he noted.

To shape culture and form virtuous people, institutions need to “mine the richest traditions of the past and innovate into the future,” he concluded.

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